Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Persepolis Rising (The Expanse #7) - James S.A. Corey

Persepolis Rising is the seventh in James S.A. Corey’s  ‘Exapnse’ grand space opera series. The Expanse has always fused hard-hitting action with relatable characters in a sweeping cosmos- and that tradition continues here.

Persepolis Rising is, at least in part, a book about legacy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s also a book about change, about insurgency, about family, about hard fought victories and bitter defeats. But the idea of legacy was one which stuck with me as I turned the pages. Holden and Naomi, two of the central protagonists of the series, are starting to feel the weight of their years. They’ve fought the good fight and saved the world multiple times, but heroism isn’t an especially forgiving gig. They’re tired – even Holden’s relentless idealism has had the sharp edges filed off it over the years. This consideration of what happens to folk heroes after they’ve done their time in the saddle is fascinating. Legacy is also a concern of the antagonist – an individual determined that humanity will be prepared to face the challenges thrust upon it as it enters a wider universe. Where Holden and Naomi have a legacy, this is a more targeted approach to immortality. Here is an individual who wants humanity to survive and throve, and believes that having one leader, with one vision, rather than a multiplicity, is the way to achieve this. It’s slightly terrifying to find that the arguments presented are plausible, the ideology resonant, if also repulsive. Here is a person with a grand, sweeping vision of humanity, one which is a response to the factors driving a new galactic society. That the vision is backed by atrocities, and the society by military force, is almost ancillary.

If Holden and the Rocinante crew are aging heroes, their opposition is energised, vital, and downright plausible. They’re not ravening hordes of unreasoning zealots, but individuals prepared to put themselves on the line for humanity, just as our protagonists are. That lets us see them as sympathetic and human, as part of the whole, rather than as an ‘other’ – and that very humanity is part of what makes them so relentlessly terrifying.

Anyway. Many of my old favourites are here – Holden, Naomi, Amos and the rest of the Rocinante gang. Seeing them react to sea-changes in their relationships, in the way which they interact with each other, is delightful. They’re a family, yes, but one with the familiar level of squabbles and strife. At the same time, they’re also able to back each other to the hilt. Reading about the Rocinante again is like a warm bath – comfortable, relaxing, enjoyable. We also get the point of view of one of their antagonists – which is humane, relatable, charming, and as a consequence, rather worrying. Sitting in the head of a man with ideals isn’t as strange as all that - witness our time with Holden. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a complex individual, on willing to do anything in service of their goal – and it’s a point of view which by its very every-day humanity evoked unease in me as a reader. I’d recommend the book for this nuanced portrayal of an opponent alone; that it mixes with a loving and unflinching gaze on the crew of the Rocinante, and their own slow decline into obscurity, makes it downright wonderful.

Plot-wise, this – well, it’s the Expanse. There’s some marvellously choreographed space-battles, if those are your thing. The tension, the sense of velocity and human cost, kept me on the edge of my seat. The feeling that both words and actions mattered was constant, and as the stakes and effects mounted, the narrative kept me committed to seeing it through. Alongside these are some compelling scenes of struggle on the ground – and the text isn’t shy about exploring themes of collaboration, terrorism, the effects and aftermaths of actions on all sides. It’s sharply observed, bloody-edged work, and it’s certain to keep you wondering what happens next.

As with preceding books, this one comes with some big ideas. There’s galaxy-spanning transport networks, and discussions about how far one can go in service of humanity. There’s grand visions and ideas that surge off the page like a fire in the brain. But they’re backed by quieter, complex moments, where everyone makes their own decisions. Where the ‘bad guys’ are heroes in their own minds, and where even the heroes have to make hard choices and bear the consequences.

Is this worth reading? If you’re new to The Expanse series, you may want to go back to the beginning, and see if its blend of hard sci-fi, human drama and high concept is for you. If you’re all caught up – then yes, you need to read this. It throws open entirely new questions about what’s going on, and what will happen next, and it does so by exploring big ideas through very human experiences, and a willingness to explore both rewards and costs. It’s an absolute cracker, and a must-read for any fan of the series. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Time Of Dread: Blog Tour, Extract and Review!

We've been talking about John Gwynne positively for a while now; Wrath, the last book in his The Faithful and the Fallen series had all the blood, battles and emotional conclusions one could hope for, and hearing of the start of a new series, a successor set in the same world but centuries later, left us waiting with great anticipation. 

As a result, we're very excited to be part of John Gwynne's "A Time Of Dread" blog tour, along with some other brilliant bloggers. You'll see their twitter handles on the left. If you want to learn more about this new series (which we can assure you is epic stuff), then we'd suggest casting an eye over their twitter feeds on the dates mentioned. 

Anyway, being part of the blog tour, we've got something special for you - an extract from A Time of Dread. Well, actually, it's the entire first chapter, which follows Bleda, young prince of one of the horse tribes, as he encounters the Ben-Elim, semi-divine messengers and now iron rulers of much of the world, for the first time. 

If that whets your appetite, we've also republished our review beneath the extract, so that you can decide whether you liked it as much as we did. 

Now dip your toes into the world of A Time of Dread...


We'll admit, that first chapter packs a serious punch. Hopefully you enjoyed it as much as we did! If the extract captured your attention, you'll find a review for the full story below, and you can follow along on the rest of the blog tour too!

A Time of Dread - Full Review

A Time of Dread is the first in a new series of fantasy by John Gwynne, whose ‘Wrath’ I reviewed earlier in the year. Gwynne has a reputation for producing high quality epic fantasy, with some compelling characterisation and…rather a lot of blood. I can safely say that in A Time of Dread, that reputation is burnished further. 

The book is a follow-up of sorts to his earlier series, taking place a century after the climatic battles and social changes of ‘Wrath’. Though a century feels like a long time, the longevity of some of the world’s inhabitants – giants, semi-divine seraphim and their nemeses - suggests the possibility of the return of a few familiar faces. But having read the previous series isn’t necessary; though there were a few times when it added extra depth to some interactions, the shift in time means that this is designed to work as a stand-alone series from the get-go, and at that, I suspect it succeeds. 

The land is, at least nominally, at peace. A large swathe of it is ruled by the winged Ben-Elim, apparently servants of an absent god, who followed their enemies back into the world to hunt them down. The Ben-Elim have a cultural advantage as rulers – their legend has been put out before them, and the malign nature of their enemy isn’t really in question. They flatly state that they were the servants of a god, and propound and propagate his lore. They’re also, broadly speaking, fair – they’re encouraging people to live safe, peaceful lives, which helps prevent the abuses of nobility against the common man. Mostly though, they’re doing this for their own reasons – a peaceful dominion allows them access to people and resources, to continue prosecuting their ongoing war against their less friendly kin. The Ben-Elim are goal oriented, and that has its own problems. They’re prone to rigidity, and to being prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone (else) if they feel it will help them achieve their aim. After all, defeating the more unpleasant flying monstrosities will lead to a safer humanity – so in the meantime, a bit of impressment or the occasional massacre is for the greater good. 

That makes them a great, conflicted set of characters to root for. They’re definitely fighting against an absolute, horrifying evil. But their efforts to end that fight are horrifying I their own way. The humans they’ve brought in around them are similarly conflicted. Some question the rigidity of Ben-Elim rule, and others, drawn from cultures being drawn under the benevolent boot of Ben-Elim rule, wonder why they let these monsters be in charge in the first place It’s a complex situation, and one which Gwynne portrays with sympathy and an unflinching eye for the consequences of “the greater good”. 

There’s also a politically separate group of humanity, out on their own and causing trouble. They feel like the Big Damn Heroes of the operation, without oversight from the Ben-Elim, living free and disrupting the bad guys that they and the Ben-Elim have in common. They suffer from a lack of resource and direction, seemingly, but they make a strong contrast in the forces of ‘good’. I’d like to see their fissures as much as those of their putative allies, but hopefully we’ll see that they’re not a united front either.

The bad guys are…well, they’re bad. The antithesis to the Ben-Elim, they’re full-on cultist-acquiring, scheming, plotting, indiscriminate slaughter bad guys. If the Ben-Elim are the perils of good intentions and an overly-taught system, their opponents are evidence of why that system exists, and they’re not nice people at all. If I have a complaint, it’s here – the bad guys are bad. Sure, the good guy have different strands of discussion over which brand of goodness they’re going to follow, in the authoritarian/libertarian mode, but their enemies represent a unifying threat – they’re so genuinely appalling, I haven’t worked out yet how they get their cultists to sign up. It’d be nice to see the same level of complexity that we see amongst the Ben-Elim in their direct opposition. 

Character-wise, there’s some interesting people in play. I’d have liked to see more of their internal monologue. Some may be familiar from the earlier series, but some – like the Drem, a trapper youth in the far wilds of the empty area known as the Desolation – are entirely new. Gwynne has a firm grasp of characterisation – Drem, for example, has mannerisms and an internal monologue which make him feel awkward and a bit confused by social nicety, whilst also explaining to the reader how his viewpoint is constructed, and letting us sympathise with it. Others, like Riv, a trainee under the Ben-Elim, give us an insight into their culture, and a degree of empathy to that culture by way of what they’re going through. Riv is smart, funny, articulate – and given to the occasional blind rage. It’s to Gwynne’s credit that he can craft characters like this sympathetically, and make the reader feel alongside them, and understand the travails which they go through. 

There’s some nifty character work here, especially as it opens up for longer term arcs in follow up books; I’m looking forward to seeing both how our protagonists from this volume interact with each other, and with any new characters in the next book. In the meantime, they’re convincing as people, with the sort of small troubles familiar to anyone, and the sort of larger causes and ideals which make them feel more heroic. Once again though, it’d be lovely to see something from the eyes of our putative villains – the book doesn’t suffer from the lack, mind you, but I’d love to get an understanding of their ideology. 

The plot…well, it’s solid. There’s a slow ramp up as we’re introduced to the world and to the stakes. By the end, there’s sword fights, dread cultists, raids, blood everywhere, a little bit of magic – and, on a broader level, the suggestion that the world is about to change, not necessarily for the better. There’s some great emotional payoffs, not just at the close, but spaced through the text. They, along with the kinetic and vivid combats, and the closely observed characters, kept me turning pages long after I should have stopped for, you know, food. 

In the end, this is a precursor to other volumes – and I imagine that the time of dread will open into something more sprawling and ominous. It’s a great start though, giving us high stakes action, believable characters, and a world which carries some of the complexities and shades of grey of our own, whilst still feeling fresh and imaginative. 

If you’re coming to this series off the back of Gwynne’s last one, I’d say this will fit your expectations – smart and well-crafted epic fantasy. If you’re coming in without the benefit of that series, don’t panic. It still works on its own, and is still a great read. In either case, it’s a rewarding read.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams

The Bitter Twins is the second in Jen Williams’ “Winnowing Flame” trilogy. Its predecessor was one of the better works of fantasy I picked up last year, so I had hopes for this one. Fortunately, The Bitter Twins is a smart, emotionally charged and imaginative work, and a worthy follow up to the Ninth Rain.

Full disclosure. I really enjoyed The Bitter Twin, and I’ve spent a couple of weeks trying to work out what it was that resonated with me. Perhaps primarily, it’s because The Bitter Twins is a story about relationships. Between families. Between fragments of the same society. Between cultures. There’s all of these links tying people together, or breaking them apart, and that feels like a really strong theme in the narrative. For example, we spend more time with the Queen of the Jure’lia. The worm people. The enemy, those who have broken apart civilisations in their wake, whose desire to consume, to change, is near infinite. But the Queen is spending more time around people these days. 

Or at least around one person; Hestillion, one of the last of the Eborans, once the legendary defenders of the world against the Jure’lia, now a broken, dying people. Hestillion begins as a prisoner, of sorts. She is devastated by the current state of her people, and horrified to be present during the return of their greatest enemy, with no means to prevent utter destruction. But Hestillion is also a pragmatist, a hard-faced, ruthless woman, willing to do a lot to survive. In doing so, she bonds with the Queen, each a conduit into the alien mindset of the other. Hestillion discovering what drives the Jure’lia, and the Queen being somewhat humanised by her contact with Hestillion. I say somewhat, because the bridge between the two is vast; the Queen is wonderfully alien, a creature struggling to understand the ants which cry out as it raises its boot to crush them. Hestillion, by contrast, is fiery, damaged, cloaking pain in an agony of false confidence.
It's a fabulous and tortured pairing, one which lets you have insight into the antagonist, even as they’re making your skin crawl.  But the awkward bond between them may also be the first step in the road to peace.

Then there’s families, made by blood and choice. Though Hestillion’s relationship with her brother, Tor, is a key part of their journey together, it was the bonds of friendship that I thought brought out some marvellous and evocative flashes of narrative. Tor is, of course part time assistant and full tiem troublemaker for Vintage, archaeologist, derring-do-er and smartarse.  But the way they interact is more common to siblings – an exasperated warmth that you can feel radiating off the page, regardless of their cultural differences. Sure, one is a semi-immortal blood drinker, and one is a cranky Indiana Jones in late middle age, but they care for each other, and that care shows.
Tor, of course, is also intrinsically linked to Noon, the Fell-witch. She’s human, and therefore an excellent venue for both Tor’s charms and his occasional need for ichor. But she can also cause things to spontaneously combust. With her mind. I have a lot of time for the portrayal of Noon; she’s a woman who has come out of a hellish situation, fought her way clear, and is dealing with it – whilst also saving the world, and occasionally flirting with a blood-drinking immortal. Noon is alright.

Vintage, of course, remains Vintage – the only person in the main cast with any idea what’s going on. That is, of course, a rather strong presumption. Still, whilst Tor and Noon are squabbling like teenagers - she setting him on fire, him stabbing him, etc. – Vintage is the voice of exasperated reason. She is also, of course, the voice of youth, of a sort. The difficulty comes where Vintage is in a relationship – with a person older than hr, more experienced, more cynical, perhaps – but also physically, visibly younger. Vintage struggles with the conflict between hr earlier, juvenile memories of a relationship which shaped her life, and the more cynically exhausted expectations of her current age – and it rings true; the ache of remembered adolescent infatuation against the wisdom of age.

Anyway, the question you’re asking is: Is it any good? Yes. Yes it is. There’s a whole investigative adventure plot I haven’t touched on for spoiler reasons. Vintage and the beasts of war get to dig into the truth behind the Eborans, past and future. It’s a melancholy exploration of a people whoappear to have lost their purpose along with their strength – and also a great adventure of mystery, discovery, Poirot-esque exclamations and more than a little blood. The plumbing of the mysteries has a suitably creepy atmosphere, one which keeps the pages turning – and the final result is, to put it mildly, a revelation.  

Alongside this plot of secrets, lies and webs of deceit, there’s also one of dragons, heroics, and, dare I say it, love. It’s complicated and simple all at once – people realising who they are, engaging their affections, and occasionally trying to save the world. It’s heartfelt, inclusive, charming fantasy, backed by explosions, dragon-fire, and the warming, wrenching, entirely plausible emotions of the protagonists.

In the end, is this something you want to read? If you’re looking for a sequel to The Ninth Rain, yes, absolutely. If you’re looking for a story not afraid to expose human frailty and emotional honesty in the search for truth, absolutely. If you want mystery and ancient crimes as a backdrop, absolutely. If the idea of flying war-beasts and the end of the world interests you, absolutely. If you have, in the past, read a book, absolutely.

The Ninth Rain was a top pick from last year, and this is a worthy successor; read the original, then follow it up with this – because it’s awesome.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Iron Gold - Pierce Brown

Iron Gold is the fourth in Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’ series. It takes place several years after the previous trilogy, showing both us and the characters what happens after a war for liberation is won. It’s not all roses, by any means.

The universe of Iron Gold is distinct from that of the precursor series. The Golds, mankind’s erstwhile masters, have been driven to the core and edge of the solar system. In between, a Republic rules. The society of the outer Golds is one which can evoke some sympathy. Where previous entries gave us sybaritic rulers, interested more in their rights than their assumed responsibilities, those at the boundaries of things hold to a different moral aesthetic. If they still regard the other classes of their population as inferior, they do so with a sense of parental duty, forces of occasionally brutal guidance, rather than feckless waste. These are the Iron Golds, those who are prepared to back their claim to superiority in blood and fire, and accept that loyalty is a two way street. They’re sympathetic, to some degree, with the courage of their convictions and a willingness to see them through.

By contrast, the Republic, founded by the heroes of the series prior – Darrow and the rest – is something of a lame duck. Or perhaps a sick horse. A senate packed with jobsworths and useful connections debates the worth of further war whilst being insulated from it, while the military looks to its commanders for instructions, and for leadership if the orders it’s given aren’t the right ones. Pierce Brown crafts a convincingly fledgling republic out of whole cloth. Its institutions are new, and in many cases, may be as corrupt as what they’re replacing. Where the existing social support network has been ripped away, often by violence, the consequences are harrowingly portrayed. If the original trilogy showed us that idealism and will can triumph over embedded hostile interests, Iron Gold shows that this sort of action has a cost. Social upheaval is as likely to bring suffering as benefit, and more likely to impact those at the bottom of the existing strata.

This is the start of a story about consequences, and about the danger of assuming happy endings. Idealism let the protagonists drive a social change, and bring a Republic into being over a degenerate aristocracy. But it turns out that building and sustaining a society is more difficult than tearing one down. Iron Gold keeps the neo-Romano themes of the original trilogy as well. The senate of Darrow’s Republic has classical undertones, and the society of the Golds on the outer edges of the system is one which carries the social virtues of duty and honour, and the sense of fatal consequences for dereliction of either.

This society serves as a fascinating backdrop to the adventures of the characters, both returning and new. Darrow, of course, we know from the original series, though now with a few more edges knocked off as time has passed. In his role as The Reaper, he’s still an idealist in the cause of freedom, as well as an elemental force of rage in its service. But that role doesn’t sit quite as well here, where Darrow is also a family man. It’s wonderful seeing him involved with his immediate and extended family – the warmth, compassion and loyalty flowing through these interactions is palpable. It serves as a contrast to the swift, brutal action Darrow is willing to take in the field – and helps to expose the internal conflict in Darrow’s soul. It may be that the world he has built no longer has a place for monsters in it. On the other hand, Darrow may be unwilling to go quietly into the night, and let others pick up what he’s built; whether that’s the right decision or not is something he’s conflicted over, and I had a sense of a man fighting to relive the conflicts of the past in the battles of the present. On the other hand, Darrow is clever, loyal, and an excellent tactician. The weight of the previous books is here, playing on reader expectations. After all, we’ve seen our hero do some seemingly disastrous things for a later purpose -  but that may not be the case here. The issue of whether Darrow has accomplished his goals and should pass the torch is a key segment of his journey through the text – selfishness wrapped in a selfless coating, or vice versa. This is a text which is unafraid to discuss the slow failing (or otherwise) of old heroes.

In that vein, we also get to spend some time with Lysander, once heir to the Gold society centred on the moon, and now a wandering vagabond of sorts. Lysander serves as a nice counterpoint to stories of decadent, oppressive Golds. He’s often warm, empathetic, and willing to at least consider the way in which society has been structured to his benefit. At the same time, there’s an incisive intelligence and a youthful energy which dance off the page, making him an engaging protagonist – one whose insecurities, flaws and virtues are held in balance by the reader. If Darrow is part of the old guard, bringing about a new ociety, Lysander is one of the consequences – freed of responsibility, but looking for a cause of his own, willing to accept change, but also to hold onto some of the history which Darrow and his acolytes see only as sclerotic remnants. Lysander is someone we can learn alongside, and seemingly a principled, even-tempered voice in a world shaped by the dying grudges of the previous generation. Much like Darrow, his internal conflicts and contradictions help to provide depth, a portrait of an adolescent troubled by expectations – his own, and others. It’s to the author’s credit that Lysander is someone the reader can empathise and sympathise with, eve as Darrow, the older hero, works to undermine and destroy the society Lysander is a part of.
If Darrow and Lysander give us high level politics, by means of debate and violence – then the other new actors in this drama give it heart, and a grounding which is needed in a world where men duel with razorwhips in armoured suits on finer points of honour.

Lyria is, as Darrow was, a Red. His great efforts to reshape the world and bring freedom to his people have mostly brought her pain. When the social order shattered, so did infrastructure for those at the bottom of the scale who didn’t march with the Reaper. Lyria’s family were miners, cast out into refugee camps once the overseers were overthrown in turn. With nowhere to go, and no prospects, Lyria’s initial existence is an indictment of Darrow’s new society, at the cusp of where ideals run headlong into the wall of reality. Fiery and determined, Lyria ekes out her days in a refugee camp, with never enough food, and with the eve-present threat of violence. Where society is invested in grand conflicts, people like Lyria have fallen through the cracks. I have a lot of time for Lyria. She’s sympathetically portrayed, someone who has been a victim of circumstance, forced to suffer the agonies brought about by the choices of others. But the grit that sustains her, the unwillingness to accept that her new life is all there is, makes her soar. If Darrow is the voice of freedom, then Lyria is that of the freed, asking difficult questions and unwilling to accept platitudes for answers. Things have become more complicated since the first series ended, and Lyria is the avatar of that complexity. In some ways naïve, but with a remarkable inner strength and a great deal of potential, she’s more than a little broken, utterly unwilling to give up, and an absolute delight to read.

Ephraim is something else entirely, another voice from the lower strata of the new social order. Once a resistance fighter, he’s now disillusioned, unwilling to commit to ideals which seem to have a cost too high to pay. The cynical, world-weary shell he projects serves as a fortress, a means to contain the damage that failed ideals and their consequences have had on his soul. But Ephraim’s quiet desperation is intriguing, and his loyalty and affection for his team is undeniable. That his team are high-priced burglars without much in the way of moral scruples is, to be fair, also undeniable. Ephraim’s exhaustion, his willingness to cut corners and make deals, shwos him as another casualty of a society in spasms. But his quick thinking and backing of his friends gives him a sympathetic veneer that helps him stand in the swamp of his own bad decisions. Here is a tarnished paladin, one with noir coursing through his soul, whose wry, cynical voice works alongside Lyria’s passionate calls for justice, both antidotes to the uncaring, blind face of high ideals and high politics.

What’s it all about, though, Iron Gold? What’s it like? Well, as ever, I’ll try and avoid spoilers.  But I’ll tell you this. It’s got some absolutely amazing scenes, ones which made me swear out loud on my commute, and, in one memorable case, miss my stop because I refused to stop reading until I found out what happened next. This is a story which will grip you, look into your eyes, and refuse to let you go until it’s done being told. There’s some truly amazing combat in here, if that’s your thing – from hand to hand violence with knives and axes, through back alley brawls with blood on the cobbles, to railguns and orbital strikes. It’s explosive, frenetic, energetic and kinetic. But around these moments are quieter ones; not all change is backed in blood. Relationships are built and founder. Betrayals, real and imagined, are constructed in a delicate filigree of social nuance which seeps off the pages and makes the world of the Reds, Golds and everyone else in between, feel alive. There’s some high politics, looking at the very shape of a future society – and there’s low politics, in the form of bribes, grubby compromises, and murder. This is also a book which isn’t afraid of consequences, and is unwilling to pull punches. No-one is safe, and that sense of fragility means that each page is an opportunity for an indrawn breath to turn into a sigh of relief – or not. It’s also a book about people. About Darrow and Lysander Au Lune, sure, but also about Ephraim and Lyria, and everyone around them. It’s a book exploring the meaning of family, looking at the virtues and vices which make people, well…people, in all their messy, confusing torment and grace. It’s a storyy willing to make incisive points, and to rip your heart out, to ignite an incandescent flame of wonder, and work its hardest to sustain it.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed Iron Gold. If you’re new to the series, it’s accessible, but I’d suggest working forward from the original, Red Rising. If you’re already a Pierce Brown devotee, then you’re in for a wild ride. It’s one which will make you question your assumptions, and one which will reward your attention and your commitment. It’s fast paced, snappy, clever, emotional, and deeply human. It’s the sequel you’ve been waiting for. Read it. Now.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Top Ten SF&F novels of 2017

So it’s that time of year again; as the days get shorter and the temperature plunges, I find myself making a top ten list. It’s an endeavour fraught with peril, because 2017, for all its faults, has been a really good year in SF&F fiction. That said, these are my top picks from 2017, arranged in the order in which I read them (clicking on the titles will navigate to full reviews where available):

It’s probably no surprise to long term readers that I picked this one. I’ve been a fan of Lawrence’s work for years, and this, set in a new setting, with a new protagonist, is a very strong entry in his oeuvre. Nona Grey is a young girl, brought to a nunnery for an education in, amongst other things, magic and murder. In a setting glimmering with nifty ideas – murderous nuns, reshaped worlds, succession struggles, to name a few – it’s Nona’s relationship with her new Sisters which really sells this to me. If she springs into action, it’s to help her friends, struggling against her own emotional difficulties. This is a smart book, which demands due attention from the reader, but repays it with a high stakes, high reward narrative, with a brilliant blend of politics, battles, and emotional entanglement. 

Another author whose books turn up here regularly, Williams has started something innovative in her new series. It’s an ensemble piece, which includes fire-throwing witches, blood-drinking elves, and some genuinely unpleasant antagonists. The setting, a world broken by and recovering from relentless assaults from an implacable enemy, is an excellent backdrop to some captivating characters and a tightly crafted plot. The idea fo a world broken up by its saviours is one which has strong emotional resonance, and that's backed up by some sparkling characterisation of less than perfect characters. It's sharply observed, emotionally compelling fantasy, which explores the myths people tell themselves, and the importance of family and frienship, even if those lead into dark places. Also, it has giant bats. Which people ride. What’s not to love?

Blackwing,  McDonald’s debut, is, to steal a word, grim. To steal another, it’s a gem – albeit one soaked in carmine. The setting is focused around the aptly named Misery, a blasted waste that serves as a No Mans Land between the empires of two sets of supernatural entities. The story focuses on Galharrow, a bounty hunter, a man willing to do pretty much anything to achieve his goals. Galharrow evokes some of the protagonists of fities noir for me – hiding a thoughtful mind behind an uncaring façade which, honestly, may or may not be a façade. Galharrow finds himself hip deep in an investigation with very worrying implications and potentially fatal consequences. The plot is full of intriguing twists and turns, with some seriously explosive battles in between. This one may be worth picking up for the dialogue alone – Galharrow’s world weary cynicism is almost never disappointed, and he’s great to read alongside.

The Seven closes out Newman’s “The Vagrant” series with a bang. Well, several, actually. We get more backstory on the Seven, guardians of an empire which seems eternal, if sclerotic. We get to see more of the relationship between Vesper and her father, which remains one of the most honest, emotionally affecting relationships in fiction. Importantly, this is a book which is prepared to look at the happy ending, and then show us what happens after that, to explore and to revel in that. There’s a feeling of hope wrapped around the core of the story, and that helps make the conflicts between a diverse, broken humanity and the uniform forces of their opposition feel real. There’s goats, of course, and moments of quiet humour mixed in with those of desperation. There’s also magic swords, betrayals, victories – and families, coming together and falling apart. As a conclusion, it promises a lot and, to my eye, delivers with a nuanced, complex story. 

The sequel to the explosive Ninefox Gambit, The Raven Stratagem takes place in the same deeply weird science-ficton world. Here, the consensual nature of reality can be shaped and broken by numbers, by performing certain rituals on certain days, not on others. Here, society is stratified, with different houses holding different positions in a sprawling multi-system hierarchy. Here, enemies are quietly gathering, ready to rip holes in a society which is literally sacrificing its citizens to maintain conceptual stability. The whole universe is marvellous – plausibly petty oligarchs are mixed in with unknowable technology and space battles are decided by equations. It’s dazzlingly innovative stuff. 
Then we get the protagonist, Shuos Jedao, the Empire’s greatest tactician. They also happen to be dead. Also quite possibly insane. With an agenda which seems to span generations, Jedao is charming, witty, and emotionally present – with hidden edges on which an observer might cut themselves. I kept turning pages to see what they’d do next, and I have to admit, I was never disappointed. This one is sci-fi at its best, asking big questions whilst giving us great characters in an interesting setting. 

I have a lot of love for Spellslinger. A fantasy western (of sorts), blended with a coming of age tale. Kellen, the protagonist has just the right amount of naivety mixed in with being a bit of a smart arse. By the standards of his society he’s weak, a liability, not worth keeping alive. Kellen, of course, doesn’t really see it that way. The setting, a society built around magic, is interesting enough – insular and proud, rigidly unwilling to explore its own shortcomings. But watching Kellen grow up, a little, and realise some of his potential – to harm or help others – was what kept me coming back. That and the brilliant banter between Kellen and his ‘partners’, which always has the potential to wring the heart or generate a belly laugh, or (often_ both at the same time. It’s got gunslingers, mages and revolution – what more needs to be said?

Smith-Spark’s debut is a painfully brilliant read. It explores themes of power and violence, and then wraps them up in questions about control and personal integrity. It’s also a story about civilisations – making and breaking them. There’s byzantine court politics, including assassination attempts, betrayal, scheming and the odd bit of thuggery. There’s battles which evoke screams and blood, the tearing down of walls between men at the same time that they carve each other apart. There’s reflections on religion, and on sustaining that religion through death. It’s a multifaceted text, which I get something new out of each time. It also has a lot of heart (possibly because it ripped it from the chest of the reader) – the raw emotional intensity pours off the page. This is whip-smart fantasy, engaging, cunningly plotted, and bloody. 

I’m a big fan of Tchaikovsky’s work, and that trend continues here. This book explores a lot of big questions, looking through the eyes of Rex. Rex is a dog – sort of. He’s a dog given intelligence and bred for war. He’s a dog with cannons strapped to his sides, and a behavioural reinforcement chip in his brain. He’s a dog that will always follow orders, even if they’re the wrong ones. Rex acts as our eyes, in a future where corporations are building deniable living weapons. The story asks questions about sentience, about how we decide who and what makes up a person. It examines the future of AI, and the ethics of war. It does all that, and it’s also an absolutely cracking read. Rex’s journey starts in the trenches, following orders and destroying the enemies of his Master, in fast-paced gun-battles which seem as familiar as they do strange. As the story heats up, it’s not afraid to ask the reader to think on bigger questions of morality and self, within a fast-paced sci-fi wrapper. It’s a smart, occasionally painful, captivating read.

9. Ruin of Angels – Max Gladstone
The latest entry in Max Gladstone’s wonderfully weird Craft sequence is an unadulterated delight. In a world where soulstuff is used as currency, and mages run corporations, Kai Pohala arrives in Agdal Lex to do a little business, and revisit her past. That Agdal Lex is a city built on the bones of another, that it’s possible to dive from the city streets into a frozen, war-torn moment of that other world – to plunder or preserve the past, that the city authorities discourage this with violence and social conditioning – well, that’s all by the by. Except, of course, that it isn’t. The characters are really the heart of this world – quick thinking fast talkers, mages with, if not hearts of gold, at least aluminium, and adventurers plumbing the depths of the city for the adrenaline, and for the price artifacts will command – each comes off the page fully formed, and their emotional entanglements feel honestly, heartbreakingly human. This is a book which explores both the human condition and the societies which we’ve built to get where we are – and adds truth, romance and explosions over the top. It’s an absolutely cracking read (and one I must do a full review of next year!).

The finale of a trilogy, Siege Line has all the qualities which make Cole’s works so much fun. It’s a fast-paced, hard hitting thriller, with some interesting supernatural elements. The combat sequences have the patina of authenticity, which always helps when the protagonist’s opponents are wights with a penchant for human flesh. Jim Schweitzer, the protagonist of the first two books, is as charming as ever; living in his own corpse has to be hard on a guy, but the love and loyalty he feels for his family is something you can feel through the words on the page; he’s driven and focused, and a lot of fun to read. He’s joined by a marvellous ensemble cast, struggling to defeat a relentless antagonist before time runs out. This blend of military urban fantasy makes up a very tasty brew indeed.

There were. of course, other abbsolutely storming reads this year; these are just a sample of the tid of excellent fiction we've been inundated with. That said, f you want to get a flavour of SF&F in 2017, these books are probably a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds

Elysium Fire is the second in Alastair Reynold’s ‘Prefect Dreyfus’ sequence – itself part of his ‘Revelation Space’ universe. It’s been ten years since the first of the sequence introduced us to Dreyfus, in a stellar blend of sci-fi and noir, so I was quite excited to see where this sequel took us.

Where it takes us first of all, is the Glitter Band, an orbital ring of high-tech habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone. The Glitter Band is perhaps humanity’s finest achievement. It’s effectively a post-scarcity economy, with no starving masses yearning to be free. In part, this is because of its unique political system. Each citizen of the Band is able to vote on issues in real time, using neural implants. It’s a society that is run, basically, by the people within it. Each habitat in the Band is able to set up its own society, and its own rules. Some of these societies are downright odd – like the habitats where everyone is perpetually wired into virtual reality with their body on ice, or where all the citizens have entered a voluntary coma. Others are considerably more toxic – “voluntary tyrannies” for example.

But the one core right of the Glitter Band is the vote. No matter your society, you can vote. It’s at the core of the Band’s social structure. When there are irregularities in the voting, that’s when the Prefects are called in. They’re what passes for law enforcement in a world which has largely eschewed crime. Negotiators, a quick reaction force, investigators, analysts – the Prefects do it all, with limited resources. Following the events of the previous book, which involved considerable loss of life and property damage, they find their institution eyed with increasing scepticism by the citizenry. There’s an antiauthoritarian trend here, and sparks of demagoguery and secession movements are starting to fly. The Band is a delicate structure, always dancing on a tightrope between the needs of the citizenry, the increasingly constrained and beleaguered authority of the Prefects, and the risk of catastrophic incidents in a world which is incredibly tightly coupled.  It’s an entirely plausible, complicated, sharply realised society, one which showcases its complexity and provides a living, breathing world for the characters to work within.

Speaking of characters. Inspector Dreyfus, unsurprisingly, returns for this book. The duty-bound inspector was always a joy to read. He has a clear affection for the high-tech utopia around him, and an awareness of its vulnerabilities. That’s matched with a similar incisiveness into both his own condition and those of his subordinates and suspects. Dreyfus is, of course, troubled – still carrying the physical and mental scars from the previous emergency, and from decisions he took decades earlier. Here is a man with the capacity to cut through the wood of false trails one so sharp he might actually cut himself.It’s nice to see that he’s as gruff with his team as ever, a layer sat over a deeper affection.

Dreyfus is backed by Sparver and Ng, the duo who served as his team in the previous book. Sparver is perhaps the more emotional, the one more prone to action over analysis. Where Dreyfus navigates through the wood to find the trees, Sparver is probably off somewhere arranging for a chainsaw delivery. Ng is the more technical, quieter, less authoritative, at least within the team. Like Sparver, she’s insightful, and a wizard with technology – but more prone to analysis, and less prone to reach for a weapon. Between them, the hyper-pig and the tech make a great backup for Dreyfus, a man in whom they’re prepared to invest their trust. Together, they make a compelling triad – laced with flaws, as all families are, but with an emotional depth that resonates off the page.

They’re surrounded by a cast of other characters of course, from the terrifyingly intelligent Jane Aumonier, head of the Prefects, for whom Dreyfus is an excellent button-man, and the more martial Prefects trying to run the organisation, to stern faced, damaged orbital construction workers, and open-faced, virulently persuasive demagogues. It’s a pleasure to seem some familiar faces in the background, their faces and views tracking from the previous book. This new emergency carries new heroes and villains of course, though the cunningly crafted narrative often left me wondering which was which.

From a plot standpoint – well, this is a mystery novel, so no spoilers. There are mysterious deaths occurring throughout the Glitter Band, and their pace appears to be escalating. Dreyfus and his team have to track down the cause, before even more people die. There’s a lot to love in the plot – the investigation is snappily paced, slowing down to give you a view on Dreyfus’s thoughts, and the reactions of those around him, letting you draw your conclusions alongside the Prefects; but it’s quite happy to ramp up for some vividly drawn and snappily paced action scenes, which wrap around the emotional core of the story and keep the stakes high and the adrenaline going. This is a story willing to look at social change and consequences in the micro and macro levels, to explore the ways that new technologies would impact people – but also wants to show you that the participants are, at heart, people. The central mystery is thoughtfully crafted and left me scratching my head trying to work it out as I went along; the world, as always with Reynolds, is beautifully drawn, and the characters seem to stroll off the page, bringing wry remarks and the streets of the Glitter Band with them.

If you’re new to Reyonold’s work, I’d say go back and start with the first in this series (“The Prefect”/”Aurora Rising”) – there’s some back story which it’s worth knowing before you take the plunge here. But as a returning reader, Reynolds has brough back Dreyfus and the Glitter Band in high style; if you’re looking for a cracking sci-fi mystery, pick this one up.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Too Like The Lightning - Ada Palmer

Too Like The Lightning is the first in a duology by Ada Palmer. In a world which looks, at first glance, to be a utopian society, this is a narrative from a somewhat unreliable narrator, picking at the seams of that society. The prose has a charmingly eighteenth century feel to it, a baroque style which, whilst dense, packs in a lot of detail, and helps evoke a regency atmosphere, somewhat appropriate to a post-scarcity world.

Speaking of which, the world. It’s one in which it appears the needs of the bulk of humanity have been met. Most people are part of one of the large social groupings, or ‘hives’, which have distinct high level ideologies and backgrounds. These semi-utopian institutions are backed by the ability to travel anywhere on the globe, seemingly very quickly. Of course, the utopia has its own issues. There’s the implication that violence is still a familiar tool of humanity, and if no-one is starving, there’s still plenty of room for ego, for conflicts based on social status. There’s other quirks as well – like the Servitors. Those who commit crimes are simply left loose, but required to perform tasks for other citizens in payment for food. Though this is a world where murder is almost unknown, it’s one in which the darker impulses of humanity still percolate. The servitors feel a lot like indentured servants, for example. Further, in a world which has actively banned the teaching of religions outside of reservations, there’s a feeling that theology is seen as a black market indulgence.

In all instances, this is a world which takes its background seriously, and spins out a plausible society based on that. It’s a society which is prepared to challenge the preconceptions of the modern reader, and to lay out consistent philosophical approaches to defend its structure. This allows the world to have a feeling of depth to it, and a vivacity and charm matched with a gentle corruption  which make this future seem very real.

In this semi-ideal future, our interlocutor is Mycroft. Made a servitor for an unknown crime, Mycroft is a prodigy. Quick thinking, erudite and clearly rather damaged, his liquid prose makes  for easy reading. Mycroft, a broken intellectual, is just one of a great many weird and wonderful characters. There’s the twins that manage the world transport network, wired entirely into the grid, never having seen the sun, and quite happy that way. There’s the mysterious J.E.D.D. Mason, whose gaze seems to compel truth from those around him. There’s Bridger, the young boy who may have unusual capacities of his own, and Ganymede, the European prince in an egalitarian world. The cast is sprawling, but given enough room on the page to become themselves, each a unique entity.  Some characters carry layers of personality, exposing themselves as the story continues – and not everyone is entirely who you, or they, think they are.

The story? Well, it starts gently, exploring the world, and looking at the potential impact of Bridger, a child with potential. The pace is a languid one, allowing for exploration of some of the ideas on the page, giving the reader room to get accustomed to the characters and their society. It does, however, gradually pick up momentum – by the end of the text, the plot is an unstoppable juggernaut, one which is almost impossible to put down. There’s some good stuff in here – for example. questions about the way we structure societies, what sacrifices were willing to make. They’re tied up with thefts, deaths, and some extremely tense verbal sparring. Without spoilers, I’ll say that though it takes a while to build up a head of steam, the narrative payoff, when it arrives, is totally worth it.

This is an elaborate, inventive, intriguing piece of sci-fi. It’s probably not for everyone, but it’s a thoughtful exploration of humanity and our future, and if you’re in the right mood, absolutely worth a read.